There are many ways to get to Trenton’s Cadwalader Park, whether cycling along the D&R Canal State Park or following the winding path to Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum.
This summer, Ellarslie has launched an ambitious exhibition, Cadwalader Park: An Olmsted Vision, on view through September 17, with an opening reception Saturday, July 15, 6-9 p.m.
At 109.5 acres, Cadwalader Park is the largest park in the City of Trenton, beloved by those who recall pony rides, picnics, concerts and the balloon man, the monkey house
and animal paddock, inhabited by deer, geese, ducks and even unusual animals such as peacocks and camels. The park serves as a reminder that Trenton, in its heyday, was a center of innovation, entrepreneurship and skilled employment.
An Olmsted Vision is timely, as a $2.4 million project is underway to restore and upgrade Cadwalader Park, with funding from the Department of Environmental Protection ($2.3 million) and the City of Trenton ($120,000). Plans include improved pathways and trails, with handicapped access; recreation and playground area and equipment upgrades; picnic grove relocation and upgrade; and more modern amenities.
In fall 2016, Cadwalader Park Alliance completed restoration of the natural area and eroded stream corridor. This area attracts bees and butterflies and provides shelter and food for birds. Visitors may see anything from crayfish or red tailed hawk to wood duck, Baltimore oriole, red-winged blackbirds, eastern bluebird, belted kingfisher and great blue heron.
“This is the only park in the state designed by (Frederic Law) Olmsted,” says Cadwalader Park Alliance’s Randy Baum. “Though the park has suffered through several decades of funding cutbacks, it still retains many of the landscape and spatial qualities present in the original plan.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, widely known as the designer of New York City’s Central Park, is considered the father of American landscape architecture. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822, Olmsted, who never completed college, studied surveying, engineering, chemistry and farming, and dabbled in such careers as scientific farmer, merchant seaman, newspaper correspondent and author. He toured the parks and private estates of Europe, publishing books on his travels. Through his writing, he opposed slavery and argued for abolition.
By the time he began his work in landscape architecture, he believed that the public realm should be a respite; a place to retreat from the stress of urban life; and that public open space should be accessible to all.
In 1857 he became superintendent of New York City’s Central Park and, along with architect Calvert Vaux, won the design competition for the park the following year. He spent the next seven years as the primary administrator in charge of the construction of Central Park. Olmsted’s success in park making led to his renowned career designing and creating some of the nation’s most important urban parks, from Boston and Buffalo to Milwaukee and San Francisco.
When Olmsted began designing Cadwalader Park in 1890, he had been planning parks in America’s leading cities for more than 30 years. Cadwalader Park is considered Olmsted’s last great urban park.
As with plans for Prospect and Central Parks, Olmsted’s plans for Cadwalader relied on the creation of long views across open, rolling meadows that contrasted with more densely planted park edges. Over the years, tree plantings in Cadwalader have closed many of the long vistas and open meadow effects envisioned by the Olmsted design. Clusters of trees have blocked natural high points, such as the Overlook, that might otherwise provide a prospect for views.
The canopy in Cadwalader Park includes maples, oaks, tulip poplars, American beech and more recent plantings of spruce. A decline of native trees was paralleled by an increase in Norway spruces and London plane trees—the Norway spruce is neither a shade tree nor one originally recommended by Olmsted.
The tract of land was originally purchased by Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, who moved from Philadelphia to Trenton in 1743. It was sold off in various parcels after 1776 and in 1841, Henry McCall bought a parcel that included most of the current park. McCall hired architect John Notman of Philadelphia to build the Italianate villa, called Ellarslie. Princeton University’s Prospect House was designed in the same style by Notman.
The City of Trenton acquired the property in1888. Initial improvements included the addition of benches, tables and a temporary bandstand. A prairie dog village was laid out and the Ellarslie residence was converted into space for a natural history museum and a refectory. Citizens began to donate small animals and birds to the park, establishing a menagerie.
Discussions among Edmund Hill, a baker, real estate developer, newspaper publisher and advocate of public parks, and other Trenton civic leaders led to the engagement of Olmsted’s firm in 1890. His plan for Cadwalader Park placed Ellarslie as a central element within a system of drives and walks by which the scenery of the park could be enjoyed. Olmsted wanted to turn the mansion into a restaurant for park patrons.
Construction of the park, with Olmsted’s guidance, began soon after he received the commission. But, as usual, politics got in the way. In 1892, a new city administration opposed to expenditures for parks came into power and Olmsted’s involvement ceased. It was during this time that the deer paddock was constructed (against Olmsted’s wishes) on the western side of the park, a statue of George Washington was placed in the park (later moved to Mill Hill Park), a statue of John Roebling was commissioned and erected and a bear cage and tall rustic observatory were built.
Original plans included a concert grove. At one point, there was a pond for ice skating in winter, but when stagnant water became a breeding ground for mosquitoes in warmer weather, it was filled in. The park once boasted the finest greens in the Eastern Division of the American Lawn Bowling Association.
Beyond Olmsted, the park took on a shape of its own. The original gazebo built for concerts was replaced in 1913 with a more substantial traditional band shell structure. It served as the all-purpose stage for weekly concerts and countless events and ceremonies in the park. The band shell burned down in 1967 during an unintentionally spectacular production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Every Sunday for 20 years, the balloon man stood at the Parkside Avenue entrance, rain or shine, selling helium-filled balloons on a stick. Mendel Abramowicz and his brothers had a novelty business selling balloons and small toys at carnivals, and took turns at the park on Sundays. After his brothers’ deaths, Mendel carried on the tradition. When the City Council passed an ordinance banning non-motorized vendors in 1983, the understanding was: the balloon man stays.
And then there were the bears. The park’s first black bear, named Kitty Hill, broke out of her crate and ran amok in Mercer Cemetery. She was recaptured and placed in a barn in the park, but soon escaped again and was last spotted in woods near Lambertville, never recaptured. The park’s last bear, Briar Patch, is believed to have lived longer in captivity than any other black bear. Briar Patch died in 1983 and is buried just behind the bear pit.
Over the years, the Ellarslie mansion has been a restaurant, an aviary, a speakeasy and an ice cream parlor. The lower floors were converted into a monkey house in a Works Project Administration project in 1936. The construction of the large pond in the northwest corner of the park was also a WPA project.
The park remained popular with city residents after World War II but by the 1970s lack of maintenance had caused the condition of the park to deteriorate. In 1971, the City began a project to convert Ellarslie from a monkey house to the Trenton City Museum. Ellarslie and Cadwalader Park were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and the Museum opened in 1978.
Board member Karl Flesch grew up on a farm in Yardville, where he got his fill of animals, but came to Cadwalader Park for the rides. He remembers the strong smell of the monkey house in the early 1960s. “The monkeys were kept in cages that extended from the indoors to the veranda, where they could be viewed. I wish that more people would come and make use of park today. It needs restoration for future generations to enjoy it.”
Viewers can see history exhibits in Ellarslie’s second floor galleries, depicting the life and works of Olmsted and the history of the park including vintage and contemporary photos, park memorabilia, concepts from the 2000 plan for the restoration of Cadwalader Park and much more. The first floor galleries display works of art specific to the park, contributed by contemporary artists and on loan from private collections.